The War on the Poor


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

Related Post Roulette

52 Responses

  1. Avatar North says:

    But you don’t understand E.D. somewhere someone might be putting a substance into their body that makes them feel good. Somewhere someone might be doing something to themselves that the majority of society doesn’t approve of. Somewhere right now! Don’t think! Don’t talk about principles! We must act! Or else our children will become drug smugglers and the hippies will win!Report

  2. Avatar greginak says:

    Good stuff Eric. Queue the post from somebody saying the way to help the poor is give the rich more money and give business more power. I don’t think anybody is against school choice as a concept. I know what i am against is school choice as way of creating a lottery for a few to escape and continue to doom so many others. To many of our problems relate to throwing a bone to a select group while screwing over others.Report

    • Avatar Simon K says:

      Then where do you start, Greg? Any school choice program has to start in a position where it can’t provide choice even for everyone in a given district, just for a small number. Structural reforms are hard, and there simply aren’t enough really good teachers and administrators. Of course you want to expand programs as quickly as possible, but it doesn’t make much sense to say “because we can’t help everyone, lets help no-one”.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Why do you hate unions so much?

        Unions are the reason these children are “at-risk” instead of working in factories!Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        I think the answer is that school choice is only one of a number of reforms at best. I don’t really think teacher quality is a problem, there are poor performers in every profession. The problem with school choice alone is that whlie you are opening a window for the lucky kids the poor schools just continue to fail. I don’t think there is any free market fairy dust that will improve poor schools when the smart or lucky kids get to leave them. School choice should be part of the mix, but needs to be mixed with a bunch of other ideas ( smaller classrooms, more evviiiillll social programs to help the lowest functioning parents, fewer non-dangerous parents in prison, etc). But just fully funding school lunch programs got all sorts of Repubs panties in a bunch so i don’t see much hope.Report

        • Avatar Simon K says:

          I don’t believe in free-market fairy dust either. I do believe very strongly in ease-of-exit as a measure of fairness. If your child’s school sucks, you should be able to send them somewhere else. If your neighbourhood has no good schools, you should be able to move. If you child’s teacher can’t teach, the school administration should be able to fire them. If you want to live in a neighbourhood that has a good school lunch program, then you should be able to move to one.

          This is why choice matters. We can’t help everyone. We could try harder, sure – we could fund school lunch programmes and force politicians to send their kids to the worst public schools in their districts. But there will still be failures. We should not be forcing other people to live with those failures.Report

          • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

            But then if you can just move, you’ll never have to get involved and fix the problem. I can completely understand on the individual scale wanting to get the hell out of pick your god forsaken place.

            But that happens and you have something like Braddock, PA, where the place is literally abandoned.

            What if the school districts were small enough that rather than speaking of the school, administrators, and teacher unions as “them,” the community was at a manageable enough size that people wouldn’t say the school is failing our kids, but rather we’re failing our kids.

            Or you could have ultimate mobility to abandon the school where you live and go get a free ride on the success a town over.

            Again, while on an individual level I would be the first to do that, cause to hell with other people, to institutionalize such a practice and policy seems to be like institutionalizing the further degradation of communities and any meaning in the term “local.”Report

            • Avatar James K says:

              But these problems aren’t being solved by community action now. How does chaining people to their school district help?

              And furthermore, why would you expect community action to solve the problem of improving malfunctioning schools? Democracy isn’t a problem-solving tool, if you want to solve a complex problem (and any human problem is complex) you experiment, try some new solutions and see if they work. Then you can replicate and try to generalise the results.

              The best thing a school choice regime could do would be to allow schools to try different techniques and see how you take poorly performing schools and make them work. Because right now we don’t know how to do that.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                We already have copious amounts of experimentation in our school systems. Some states do very well at education, others don’t. There is all sorts of research regarding various methods, programs and styles. Protip: Headstart kicks ass, we should be funding it like mad. We have a lot of options open to us, what we need is to mate those solutions to the problems. But we need to put aside ideology to a great degree and use all the likely looking solutions.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                Cite on Headstart? I haven’t followed it very closely, but I’m pretty sure I remember reading some studies suggesting that its effects faded pretty quickly, and I know I remember a political shootdown of an effort to actually do an experimental study of Headstart by holding some qualified kids out and comparing them longitudinally with those that got in. The objection was that “Headstart’s so great that it would be a crime to hold some out and deprive them of that greatness” (which rather missed the point about how we know whether it’s actually great or not).

                But that’s been going on a decade, so there may be recent studies I’ve missed.Report

            • Avatar Trumwill says:

              The end result of this – unless you ban private schooling and homeschooling – is that only those with resources can leave. As James K points out, we really know pretty little of what works on a grand scale. Maybe through the experimentation of choice we will find something that works with some degree of consistency. Maybe there is nothing that works consistently and different things will work with different kinds of kids. Maybe a whole lot are doomed due to factors outside the schools’ control.

              But right now, the exit is limited to those with resources and know-how. At least with school choice you open it up to (at least some of) those with know-how that lack resources. That’s not perfect, but I find it preferable to the status quo.

              Worth noting, “school choice” as I consider it can apply to vouchers, but it could be limited to charter schools. It could be a number of things. In a lot of the country, I consider the latter sufficient. In a couple of ruralish places I’ve lived, though, more flexibility could be required.Report

            • Avatar Simon K says:

              I understand the dilemna and the desire for community, EC, but I can’t see preventing people from exiting helping. We’re already pretty strongly sorting communities by income – house prices correlate with school district above all else. For school’s to succeed they need funding, and it doesn’t hurt to have kids from well-off families where the parents have time, motivation and money either. Well off, motivated people will always be able to exit, if only by sending their kids to private school, but also by simply moving to good districts and to areas with good neighbourhood schools. So by preventing exit, you create failing school districts full of poor people. Those districts can succeed – I know of one near here that has some awesome magnet schools, and thanks to No Child Left Behind gets zero credit for them – but the odds are seriously stacked against them.Report

            • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

              So let’s say you have the lottery, and some students escape. A few to a great private school on a voucher program, some more to a charter school that is mediocre in performance but better suited to the individual needs.

              Naturally the rest have to stick it out (though of course most won’t), but as everyone has noted, saying that helping a few won’t help them all is not a good argument for saying help no one. I’m clearly sympathetic to this view. It’s the one that I myself would hold if it were my child, for all the reasons E.D. notes.

              And in fact my parents did “exit” the system. Though my older brother went to public school k-12, me and my two younger siblings were home schooled till roughly high school.

              Of course, that’s not a viable option for most people, especially in urban areas where, though I don’t have any statistics at the moment, I would assume most involved parents are already working more than 40 hours a week, not to mention the uninvolved ones who are even less available for whatever unfortunate reason. My parents worked out their lives so that one of them would always off while the other worked, a luxury and a privilege to be sure (made possible by working for those corrupt unions no less).

              So what if in a small community, of so many square blocks, families sent their kids to a day care instead of a school. Those parents who were available would work with a group of teachers on a given day to home-school a large group of neighborhood kids at the same time. Maye this is grades 1-8. At the end of grades 1-8, the students get tested, and prepare to enter “the system” going on either to a mass public school, a private one, or a privately run public one (charter). I’m imagining a small building, capable of holding maybe only 60-75 kids max. The parents and teachers work with them where ever they are at, focusing on reading, math, creative projects, etc. By the time they actually have to enter the system, I’d be surprised if they were any worse off then the average of their peers. With such a low expectation bar, even minimal education would be par for the course (though I think it would be better).

              And the key is, the system is run sort of like a co-op, managed by teachers and parents democratically, though no such fancy political title need be applied. Parents who didn’t want to send their kids wouldn’t have to. Kids who were a problem would be allowed to continue attendance at the discretion of other neighborhood parents. The environment would be safe and offer a real sense of community, all the while offering parents and teachers involved the greatest latitude in how they decide to run things.

              Sounds pretty wishful to me. I’m sure anyone who just read that had trouble making it from sentence to sentence without thinking of the millions of reasons why such an idea would be non-practical if not wholly unrealistic.

              James K would probably note: “But these problems aren’t being solved by community action now.”

              And honestly, the idea described above has all of the features of “choice” and trying what works that the charter schools do. Hell the only different between the above and a charter school is who gets to be in charge. And if I had any problem with charter schools in general, (though I’m sure there are exceptions) it’s that they offer choice from the bottom up, but are still admin’d from the top down. I’m one of those people who walks through the supermarket and doesn’t see much “choice,” only an ungodly number of orange juices all with minimal differences between them.

              The real problem with education as we all know is parents. Do you read to your child, make them lunch, talk to them about school? Cause if you do you’re already making it far ahead in the statistics.

              I’ll have to do some more research into neighborhood organizations, there were several I studied in a urban politics class that I would fit the bill for what I’ve suggested. But I can’t remember much about them at the moment.

              But two things I think are key are accountability and community. Not accountability for teachers, but accountability for parents and students. It’s the former’s children and the latter’s futures. And as much as charter schools are a start, I think they give too much of an illusion of choice (while scooping up government funds in the process), without fundamentally addressing the disconnect between students and teachers, and parents and the admin.

              I’ll try to develop this more in the future. Your critiques of my thinking, diagnosis, and pipe-dream suggestion are welcome.Report

              • Avatar Trumwill says:

                There are aspects of your plan that I find really attractive, but it collectively relies on a lot of the parents that we agree are part of the problem. Or it relies on the subsection of parents that actually have the time to become engaged. Which sounds good… unless it becomes like Home-Owner Associations where those that are most motivated and most involved are those with an agenda (perhaps well meaning, but not your agenda).

                And so even then, I would want the ability to pull my kids out. And, because we have money, we’d be able to. Others, however, wouldn’t. And so they will have to miss days at work and take a lot of time out of their busy lives for their children’s education. That’s not so bad, except that the time devoted to their kids’ education involves not helping them with homework or supplementing coursework, but in internecine struggles with other parents.

                Charters and the like may be top-down (generally), but you get schools that can sell particular styles of education. Preschools and dayschools do this sort of thing all the time with Montessouri, K-12 prep, artsy focus, religious, and so on. There’s no reason that the same can’t be true of K-12 with schools (perhaps excluding the religious) that focus on DI, rigid testing, more freeflow inquiry-based education, and so on. And schools that weed out kids that misbehave versus those where correcting bad behavior is part of the curriculum.Report

              • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

                I think this would require, as any full fledged charter school program would, that money for education follow the child.

                Documentation of a child being enrolled in a certain program, whether charter, public, private, co-op homeschooling, etc. would then authorize a grant from the state government, matched maybe by another smaller one from the fed, in a fixed amount per child.

                I think what I’m more or less advocating is a a system that doesn’t give the monopoly just to public schools (current), or to private schools (vouchers), or to charter schools, but rather to any parent or group of parents that won’t to implement their own program. And of course, as with any system, you can take your child out, or they can get kicked out.

                And as you mention about the bad parents, I’m all for given them the opportunity and then leaving them behind. Same with the kids. You want to be a jerk-off? Then go mess around at home or on the street. Maybe that’s an insanely irresponsible policy, but perhaps, while it’s effects would be a rise in crime and such in the beginning, all those kids who were going to school no longer having to deal with would be offenders might have a better chance at making it somewhere.Report

              • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

                Just to clarify:

                I think what I’m more or less advocating is a a system that doesn’t give the monopoly just to public schools (current), or to private schools (vouchers), or to charter schools, but rather to any parent or group of parents that want to implement their own program.

                In other words, all of the above.Report

              • Avatar Simon K says:

                It is a very attractive idea, and aside from the issue of scale, that’s basically what Sweden does and what the UK is moving towards. Any group – corporation, local government, or group of parents and teachers – can start a school and provided they meet some standards (that of course being a huge issues I’ll brush under the carpet for now) they get the same funding a regular public school gets. It seems to work well in Sweden, but then most things do.

                But we do actually do this, or something very close, in parts of the US that allow charter schools, right? There seems to be an assumption going that charter schools are run by large top-down entities, and maybe its true in some places, but round here they’re run exactly as you describe – by groups of parents and teachers. I’m not sure I understand the difference between your vision and the charter school system, really.Report

              • Avatar Trumwill says:

                I must have misunderstood your idea. I thought you were advocating replacing public schools with your formula (so that we would have to go to these corner schools), but from here it sounds like you’re talking about a sort of neighborhood-based charter school idea. That I can actually get behind.Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                Ah, that’s quite different to what I was thinking you meant. Perhaps I’m just overly cynical, but when you mentioned community action I assumed you mean the community should “do something” about poor schooling, not actually do somethingabout it. What you’re describing is just the sort of experimentation we need more of.

                I agree that merely letting different people own traditional schools isn’t enough. People need to be free to try all sorts of things, the only way to figure out what works is to try it and see. Theory can help identify promising targets, but there’s no substitute for collecting real data.

                I do think that “the parents matter” is, while true, a bit of a cop out. It’s true that the current educational model produces good outcomes in favourable conditions, but that’s not saying much. The real trick is to work out how to produce good, or at least adequate, education under unfavourable conditions. That’s hopefully what we’ll find out by having people try out new educational models.Report

        • Avatar Scott says:


          You mean social programs like the Opportunity NYC initiative that paid poor folks to make sure their kids went to school, go to the doctor, get a library card or attend a PTA meeting? It failed as you couldn’t even pay them some of these folks to do the right thing.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck says:

          ” The problem with school choice alone is that whlie you are opening a window for the lucky kids the poor schools just continue to fail. ”

          In other words, “we can’t help everybody, so let’s help nobody.”Report

          • Avatar greginak says:

            in other words no…. I clearly said school choice should be one solution but many ideas need to be implented. I don’t think we can adhere to any one idealogy to solve school problems since the problems themselves are multifacited and complex. We actaully need all sorts of ideas and approaches.Report

        • Avatar Mike Farmer says:

          I don’t know why E.D.’s excellent post would automatically elicit an attack on free markets, but here we have it.Report

        • Greginak, School choice doesn’t necessarily have to mean good schools vs. bad schools. Ideally it should mean program vs. program. The goal should be for each school to create specific programs that would appeal to a subset of kids. Those kids then attend that school by choice and you get a more invested student and hopefully parents.

          As for dealing with poor children themselves who often under-perform, there’s a lot of social hurdles to overcome. For example, here in Louisville race plays no appreciable role in performance Until kids get to high school and then you will see minority kids drop off the radar. How does a school policy deal with the cultural pressures that lead to that statistic?Report

  3. Avatar Scott says:


    Is it possible for you to write without a lot of hyperbole? Your writing might be more effective and convincing if you give it up. Take for example your claim that, “No other country in the world locks up as many people as America does.” Really, do you even know how many folks China or Russia locks up? I guess you just believe the figures that their governments publish for gullible folks such as yourself.Report

    • Avatar Scott says:

      Sorry, posted in the wrong thread.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        At least it was an education thread.Report

        • Avatar Scott says:

          Actually I realized this was the right thread for my response. I forgot that E.D.’s subject veered from Maye’s conviction to racism to incarceration and then to poor schools. In the end it sounds like some of the problem was with the police and most certainly it was with the crappy lawyer his family hired.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      I suspect Ed meant the US locks up more people per capita than any other country.Report

        • Avatar Scott says:

          It would be nice if the article you cite actually had figures showing where the author gets his info from about the number of folks that other countries lock-up. So once again we are just supposed to have faith that Coates is telling the truth. But the larger question remains is why you would believe any figures that Russia or China puts out. They can’t even be honest about the number of AIDS cases they have but you will take their prisoners number on faith?Report

        • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

          Either way, unless your disputing that we lock up too many people, the number of people other countries lock up shouldn’t be central to that argument. If we are all in agreement that the current incarceration rate is too high, for cost reasons, social justice, etc. I’d rather not be using Russia or China as a benchmark.Report

          • Avatar Scott says:

            I do think we lock up too many folks in some classes of non-violent offenders and don’t give violent offenders enough time. I would like to see more states implement a three strikes law for violent felonies and a wider use of the death penalty.Report

        • Avatar Heidegger says:

          We should probably applaud law enforcement for their vigilance in protecting its citizenry. What does it matter if we lock up more than any other country. Are you saying we’re locking up innocent people?Report

          • Avatar Scott says:

            LEOs only enforce the laws the politicians create. Don’t curse them, curse the politicians. My statements have nothing to do with the question of whether or not we are locking up innocent people as non-violent doesn’t mean innocent.Report

            • Avatar Heidegger says:

              Scott, “LEOs only enforce the laws the politicians create.”

              Sorry Scott, but I just don’t believe in astrology. Seriously, the reply mechanism on this site is extremely off-kilter so I hope you understand the questions I was asking, “What does it matter if we lock up more than any other country. Are you saying we’re locking up innocent people?”, were directed at EDK.Report

              • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

                Yes, we do lockup innocent people, and people who are arguably NOT a danger to society.

                The only people who need to be in jail are violent felons, and people who have a hard time keeping their fingers off other people’s property (and even those should only be jailed after 3 strikes, and made to compensate victims otherwise)Report

              • Avatar Scott says:

                So if you steal other folks’ property you should be able to get away with it three times before you are sent to jail? Are you really serious?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Some would say that there exists a middle ground between “getting away with it” and “life sentence”.

                Two/five/ten year stints exist here, some say.Report

              • Avatar Scott says:

                Maybe you should read what MRS wrote and he wrote, “should only be jailed after 3 strikes.” I’m sure he can answer for himself.Report

              • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

                Let’s see, if someone breaks into my house while I am gone, steals my TV, & sells it for cash (or otherwise disposes of it in such a way that it can not be returned to me), how am I better served?

                A) Throw the bum in jail for 2-5 years, while my insurance company (assuming I can afford to have insurance) reimburses me (thus raising both my taxes (to cover the cost of his incarceration) & insurance rates).

                B) Put him on probation with the requirement that he get a job, stay outta trouble, avoid drugs & alcohol, etc., & reimburse me (or my insurance co) for the damage he caused. Violate the terms of probation, then you go to jail.

                If no person or animal was physically harmed, then I see no need to lock a person up for a first or second offense. Once you hit 3, then you’ve shown a definite pattern of not being able to play nice with society & you need to go bye-bye for a while (like 10-20 years).Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                While, at first glance, I like this… it strikes me as much more likely to result in debtor’s prisons than not.

                Imagine, if you will, the government finding out that you could send folks to these places for tax purposes.

                We’d have gulags within a week.Report

              • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

                Not sure how, since no one is put in jail because they owe a debt that was incurred legally (or as a result of legal activity).

                In this scenario, if you are put into jail for not compensating your victim, that is merely a failure to obey probation, which people get put in jail for all the time. Try not paying a traffic fine, you’ll eventually risk jail time. Is that debtor’s prison?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                How’s about crimes against public property?

                I am not crazy about the idea of paying off crimes in prison because that seems to me to open the door to more and more crimes being pay-offable.

                (I’m sure you’ve heard similar regarding organ donation for death penalty victims.)Report

          • Avatar Heidegger says:

            Scott–previous comment was to have been in reply to ED. I’d even go for a two strike policy for violent revolving door felons. And no reason Old Sparky (electric chair) can’t get cranked up for the graduating class of homicidal murderers of children and the elderly. They just should not be occupying in space in this universe.Report